Hardening Off to Winter’s Chill

City Cycling in Cold Weather

When winter temperatures plunge, the resolve to continue riding outdoors is tested. There is no doubt that city cycling in cold weather requires adjustments, both mental and physical, but they are worth the effort.

The first week or so of outings in really frigid temperatures reminds me of a process known in gardening as “hardening off.” The words sound harsh, but they actually represent a kindness. Gardeners help trays of seedlings transition from the comfy confines of the greenhouse by gradually exposing them to longer periods of wind, sun and temperature extremes outdoors. As they become “hardened off” to the elements, the seedlings gain strength and the ability to thrive.

Build Up Gradually

It’s the same with winter cycling. The first cold snap can feel withering – especially if a mild autumn and start to winter extend our ability to ride outdoors in comfort. But a step-wise approach may help surmount psychological and physical barriers to the point where winter cycling is fun and energizing.


Like the seedling, gradual exposure will acclimate you to more extreme conditions. Begin with short rides, then extend their duration. The going may be tough at first. But the more often you ride in the cold, the more acclimated you will become, until it all feels like second nature and you can enjoy the invigoration, psychological lift, fitness benefits and sense of accomplishment of pedaling city streets in cold weather.

“It makes me feel alive,” is how a friend summed up her enthusiasm for winter cycling.

But even a gradual introduction won’t work without adequate physical protection from cold and wind. (For this post, I’m focusing on dry conditions only.)

What’s Your Limit?

Finding your comfort level is essential. After all, what joy can be found in pedaling outdoors if your fingertips are numb and a frigid draft is invading the neckline of your jacket?

Use the first short rides in chilly weather as a shakedown period to evaluate your clothes and gear. Here’s my test: If I can layer up enough to stay warm in the coldest weather that I’m willing to tolerate, then I know I’ve got my basic winter cycling system dialed in. I just wear my regular clothes, supplemented with winter road cycling gloves and a wind-proof helmet liner.

Read more in the Velojoy Guide to Winter Cycling.

From there, it’s just a matter of working backwards to figure out what layers I can leave at home for relatively warmer days. Experiment with temperature limits and clothing choices; these are personal. (But you may surprise yourself with your hardiness.)

Protect Extremities

When you are ready to venture out, the rule of thumb is to dress so that you feel a little bit cold for the first 10 minutes of the ride before the physical exertion of pedaling warms up your core. In fact, I find managing overheating when wearing my parka a bigger issue than battling a chill.

The more substantial challenge lies in keeping extremities – feet, hands and head – insulated and protected. No amount of exertion will warm your fingers and toes while your body is busily shunting blood circulation to your core in really cold weather. You may need to get creative, or even spend a little extra, to assure comfort.

What Shakedown Rides Can Tell You

For your customary ride, ask yourself: Is one pair of socks adequate or should you add a wool pair? If your shins get cold, should you switch to your knee-length boots? If you wear cycling shoes, which are vented, are neoprene shoe covers warranted? Is the insulating material in your winter gloves beefy enough, or do you need to upgrade them or add a liner? Can the cap beneath your helmet be pulled down to warm your ears? What about your neck? Consider swaddling it in a wool scarf or a gaiter.

My own shakedown rides last week revealed the need to replace a missing pair of liner gloves and the reminder to stock up on lip balm against chapping from the wind.

No doubt, there are days when the call of the cozy comforter or the communal warmth of a subway car trump any thought of getting outdoors on two wheels. That’s fair enough. But doing yourself the kindness of “harding off” to cold weather can make a difference in how you engage with the elements. Like the seedling, you’ll be stronger for the effort.

Readers: How do you cope with the first substantial drop in temperature. Do you continue to ride outdooors?

Sprouts photo: Pookie&Schnookie/Flickr

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